A core theme of Advocacy Organizing is that knowing the underlying socio-economic, political, demographic, and cultural trends in each level of your surrounding context – local, regional, national, international – lets you tap into the momentum of those on the rise, identify new allies, and figure out how to isolate opponents. It’s a way to rise with an issue’s tide, taking advantage of momentum not of your own making. At one point I go even further, describing a path towards influence that I label “riding in someone else’s train” in which your demands become a minor but committed part of a bigger and more powerful coalition that is gaining influence – the way people opposed to birth control have become an important element of the larger anti-abortion movement.
Coalitions are very different from partnerships or even alliances. A partnership, similar to what the old Communist Party called a “United Front,” is with someone or a group with whom you have broad and deep complementary alignment in values, modes of operation, interests, and goals – your “basis of unity.” A partnership is not a merger, although the joint planning, communication, and activity that partnership implies can be a first step. It’s not even a marriage, where you pledge life-long fealty. But it’s a significant courtship, perhaps leading to a decision to live together.*
Coalitions and alliances are roughly similar, with organizations typically describing their relationships with others as coalitions and nations forming alliances. Both are similar to what used to be called a “Popular Front” – the joining groups share a fundamental core interest or goal, but the breath of alignment is narrow. The key is that the area of agreement is important enough to at least temporarily overshadow the areas of difference. During WWII, the USSR and the USA had radically different political and economic systems but shared a desperate need to defeat the Axis powers.
Coalitions are just as loose. They are assemblages of a wide variety of groups agreeing to work together around a very limited set of demands or around a very specific series of actions – the coalition’s “basis of collaboration.” In the strongest coalitions the shared value or goal is vital to each group and expandable – meaning that it implies and legitimizes a large set of secondary areas of potential agreement. A commitment to protecting voting rights or ending racial discrimination is such a keystone value because they both can lead to a broad range of additional areas of collaboration.
On the other hand, to maximize their influence on decision-makers around a specific goal, coalitions need to be as broad as possible. That means that they have to include groups with a wide variety of interests, goals, values, and methods of operation that don’t necessarily agree on anything beyond the coalition’s explicit demands, and may even oppose each other on other issues. The disquieting insight about this type of coalition is that if there’s no one in your coalition that makes you feel uncomfortable, the coalition probably isn’t broad enough. The risk is that you get absorbed into the coalition, losing your own voice and larger vision, or end up with your demands getting watered down or dropped as the coalition moves towards victory – the weaker you are in relation to the larger coalition the bigger this risk.
As with the strategy of increasing the odds of winning specific demands by creating broad-as-possible coalitions, “riding on someone else’s train” – which can be seen as a kind of coalition strategy -- has positive and negative possibilities. The hope is that your demands get incorporated into the overall platform of a much larger movement, and slide into approval in the wake of that movement’s success. The strategic goal is to be “the tail wagging the dog” – positioning your group’s members, activities, resources, or public appeal as essential to the larger movement’s success, thereby making your presence necessary and your demands non-ignorable.* The risk, as with coalition work, is that your organization and its demands are treated as expendable and get weakened or lost.
There are no fully satisfying answers to these risk-reward tensions. How do we balance holding on to the full scope of our vision, to the purity of our values and positions, against the reality that we need to remain flexibly able to adapt with changing conditions, that we don’t know everything, and that it is also a betrayal of our cause to turn down the opportunity to get at least some of our goals adopted? Building or joining coalitions is also a powerful way to counter the racial and income-based separateness of so many advocacy groups – in which case, “centering” the perspective and demands of the non-white or low-income group could be a positive step, although doing so doesn’t require delegitimizing the demographic reality and vision of the non-marginalized group. We simply have to constantly evaluate the likely gains and losses of every step. And then hope we chose right.
* One tactic to reverse the absorption risk is “entryism” – when a disciplined group enters another as members but without dissolving (or then quickly recreating) their own organizational structure, turning themselves into a faction of the larger group. If the entering group is a “cadre” organization – fully action-oriented with members trained and committed to be organizers and leaders -- they can quickly emerge as the hardest working and most militant members of the larger group, thereby winning support and positions of leadership. After recruiting as many additional people as possible into their faction, when the entering group’s leadership feel they have pushed the infiltrated group as far as its platform and base allowed, usually absorbing its youth group and other militants into the entrant’s network, the larger “hosting” group may be abandoned often leading to its collapses.